In his new book “Denialism – How
Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific
Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens
Our Lives,” New Yorker Magazine Staff Writer
Michael Specter not merely parrots but
plagiarizes Dr. Paul Offit, garbles simple
science and gets key facts dead wrong – all
in an effort to show that the kind of people
who read and write Age of Autism don’t know
what we’re talking about.
Chapter 2, titled Vaccines and the Great Denial, is a full-throttle attack on those concerned about a possible link between vaccines, mercury and autism; he calls it “a war against authority and scientific rigor” and lambastes Jenny McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and even former NIH and Red Cross Director Bernadine Healy for raising concerns. “After all the research,” he writes, “thimerosal might be the only substance we might say with some certainty DOESN’T cause autism.” Those who believe otherwise – and that includes “the anti-vaccine blog Age of Autism” – are simply “denialists [who] have no interest in scientific decisions.”
The book received a prominent and glowing review in The New York Times last week, and the author is making the rounds of media outlets, including Morning Joe and NPR.
The plagiarism involves a passage by Paul A. Offit, M.D., a vaccine developer and the most prominent critic of the vaccine-autism theory, to whom Specter writes he is “deeply indebted.”
No kidding. Here is what Offit wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008:--
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, American lawyers successfully sued pharmaceutical companies claiming that vaccines caused a variety of illnesses, including unexplained coma, sudden infant death syndrome, Reye's syndrome, transverse myelitis, mental retardation, and epilepsy. By 1986, all but one manufacturer of the diphtheria–tetanus–pertussis vaccine had left the market. The federal government stepped in, passing the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which included the creation of the VICP. Funded by a federal excise tax on each dose of vaccine, the VICP compiled a list of compensable injuries. If scientific studies supported the notion that vaccines caused an adverse event — such as thrombocytopenia after receipt of measles-containing vaccine or paralysis after receipt of oral polio vaccine — children and their families were compensated quickly, generously, and fairly. The number of lawsuits against vaccine makers decreased dramatically.
Here is what Specter wrote in “Denialism”:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, American lawyers successfully sued pharmaceutical companies, claiming that vaccines for pertussis caused a variety of illnesses, including unexplained coma, sudden infant death syndrome, Reye’s syndrome, mental retardation, and epilepsy. As a result, by 1986 all but one manufacturer of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine had abandoned the American market. The risk of lawsuits had become far greater than the potential for profits. The federal government, increasingly concerned that no company would be willing to manufacture essential vaccines, passed the National Vaccine Injury Act, which included the creation of the VICP.
Funded by a federal excise tax on each dose of vaccine, the VICP compiled a list of compensable injuries. If scientific studies supported the notion that vaccines caused an adverse event – such as thrombocytopenia (the dangerous depletion of platelets) after receipt of measles vaccine, or paralysis following an oral polio vaccine – children and their families were compensated, and usually quite generously.
Copying words and ideas of others, without attribution, is called plagiarism whether it is intentional or not. Told that we had found significant copying of writing by Paul Offit, Specter first said he would not have time to talk about it, “but for what its worth I did send the chapter to Dr. Offit. Furthermore, I have not posted footnotes but all such information gleaned from any source will be sourced specifically when I do.” After we sent the specific passages side by side, he responded:
“You are totally right - except, I would argue, on terminology. I just checked … I looked at my emails with Dr. Offit. My fault, egregiously, but plagiarism? I started out quoting him extensively, and then stopped quoting him to insert some of my own stuff. Picked back up on those sentences AND SHOULD HAVE put them back in quotes, writing ..... Offit continued. etc. I didn’t. I was purely a mistake (stupid) and I will get it fixed as soon as we reprint (they do it on a rolling basis. could be very soon.)
“I went through this chapter many times as did others. But this was clear error, carelessness, call it what you want. Nobody to blame but me. But I regard plagiarism is stealing somebody else's idea without giving him credit. I don't think you can read this chapter, or the acknowledgements, or the notes, and come to the conclusion that was my intention. (Had it been, maybe I would have been smart enough not to point the reader to the very NEJM story I was supposedly plagiarizing in that very passage.) Also, might have been kind of dumb to steal outright from the best known writer on this subject, and a person I have interviewed at length.
“Anyway, this is wrong and my fault completely. You can of course interpret it in any way you think makes sense. Sorry to have even mistakenly misled you or any other reader.”
In fact, an overall reading of the
chapter buttresses Specter’s view that
“clear error, carelessness, call it what you
want” is the heart of the problem. In a
follow-up e-mail, we pointed out the
following clear errors:
-- By 1962, Specter writes, the number of vaccines had grown to five – “diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, and the MMR.” In fact, the MMR was licensed in the United States in 1972.
-- Specter’s description of the Hannah Poling ruling in Vaccine Court suggests he does not understand the word “encephalopathy,” or brain disease, perhaps the fundamental concept in the debate over how vaccines might trigger autism. “Hannah had a mitochondrial enzyme deficiency, which consisted of a metabolic disorder called encephalopathy,” he writes. “The court was compelled to address a difficult question: could the fever that Hannah developed following those vaccines (one of which was a measles vaccine) worsen her encephalopathy?”
No one has claimed that Hannah had encephalopathy – brain disease -- before her vaccinations. And the assertion that a mitochondrial disorder “consisted of a metabolic disorder called encephalopathy” is gibberish. The confusion is especially striking given that Specter has won numerous awards for science reporting and was a reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times before joining The New Yorker.
-- Specter mischaracterizes the government’s decision to ask vaccine manufacturers to phase out mercury from childhood immunizations in 1999, blaming anti-vaccine activism by parents. In fact, the government itself first identified the concern and requested the removal of mercury; parents had nothing to do with it and were unaware of the issue. This is not in dispute. Yet Specter writes:
“By July 1999 … the preservative had been ordered removed from childhood vaccines as a precautionary measure. Vaccine manufacturers, under fierce public pressure, had agreed with the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics. … In other words, they decided it would be easier to get rid of the controversy than explain it. The decision, an attempt to placate parents, had no basis in scientific research, and set off a cascading wave of misunderstanding that persists to this day.”
Specter’s response to these errors: “I
will say that, assuming you are right, and I
do assume that, the 1962 approval date seems
like a clear oversight type that fact
checkers didn’t catch. Other things we could
maybe disagree on at another time. But when
I make mistakes (and I do make them) I fix
them. And will. None of it is too small to
Honestly, Michael, what can’t be fixed is a drive-by attack on smart, well-informed and decent people whose grasp of the truth is much stronger and harder-won than yours. Fortunately, the only target you managed to hit was your foot.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.